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Monday, March 31, 2003
Updated: April 4, 5:33 PM ET
Pack your toga for road to Final Four

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

MILWAUKEE -- I stood in the terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, scanning the departure board for my connecting flight from Seattle. O'Hare is the world's busiest airport, and its many departure monitors linked me to virtually anywhere I could wish to go -- New York, Honolulu, San Francisco, Paris, London, Rome, Beijing -- but they could not tell me where I needed to go. That information required another monitor.

A television set.

Planning to visit each of the Final Four schools in the week before next weekend's games, I left Seattle on Saturday morning with a destination of Lexington, Ky., the bluegrass home to the No. 1-seeded University of Kentucky, the school many people expected to not only reach the Final Four but to win it.

A funny thing happened on the way to O'Hare, though. While I flew over the Rockies, underdog Marquette took a 19-point first-half lead against the Wildcats. By the time we landed in Chicago and I reached an airport bar across from my connecting gate, there were just 12 minutes left in the game and Marquette's lead remained securely in double-figures.

Millions of bracket pools would go into the trash can, and I would not board my flight for Lexington.

Instead, I rented a car and drove 80-some miles north to Milwaukee. My road to the Final Four would go through Marquette. And as it played out, Syracuse, Kansas and Texas as well.

Marquette and Syracuse? I should have packed warmer clothes.

During the coming week, I will visit all four campuses, soaking in so much college atmosphere I might need a student loan. There is no set syllabus, but I hope to attend lecture halls, basketball practices, intramural tournaments, protest rallies, ROTC training sessions, fraternity houses and dorm dining halls. I will absorb as much college life as possible, just in case someone slaps me with a blue book exam on what these campuses were like as the Final Four approached and the Iraq war continued.

I will channel the spirit of James Naismith and Al McGuire. I will wear bright orange in Syracuse and burnt orange in Austin. I will attend mass with the Jesuits and class with the Orangemen. I will chant "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" and signal "Hook 'em Horns." I will eat dorm food so awful it will make me crave press box hot dogs. I will drink more than I should. I will pull all-nighters.

I will not open a textbook.

In other words, it will be just like being in college again, except there will be no tuition bills. (Or if there is, I will simply expense them.)

Marquette celebration
Matt Trautschold climbs onto the shoulders of buddy Dan Faxel for a better viewing of the Marquette basketball team returning to campus.
Milwaukee's Best
Some players train most of their lives to reach the Final Four. I get to avoid the line drills and reach it via plane, rental car and company credit card.

As I pulled out of the rental car lot and into a late March snow flurry Saturday evening, fans were spontaneously streaming out of the Marquette dorms, apartments, bars and restaurants and racing across downtown Milwaukee to the Lake Michigan shoreline, roughly a mile and a half to the east. Eventually, a sea of fans flowed down Wisconsin Street, carrying on a tradition that began a quarter-century earlier when Marquette fans raced to the Lake following the 1977 Final Four.

"As soon as the buzzer sounded, we took off downtown," Dan Faxel said to me when I reached the campus a couple hours later. "We don't have a football team at Marquette so this is our big hurrah."

"We just started running," Matt Trautschold said. "It seemed like the logical thing to do."

I could certainly see that. On the other hand, their wardrobe did not appear quite so logical as they waited for the Golden Eagles to return to campus Saturday night. The temperature was in the 20s and the brisk night wind made it seem much colder, but Trautschold wore only a toga.

"I can't feel my toes anymore," Trautschold said, glancing down at his flip-flops.

Marquette students
When your school hasn't made the Final Four since 1977, the toga party can wait.
Trautschold and Faxel were on their way to the Marquette swim team's annual toga party when they heard that there would be a pep rally for the basketball team when it returned to campus from the Midwest Regional around 10:30. Well, naturally the two just had to go to that, regardless of the cold, regardless of their attire.

"Marquette goes to the Final Four only once in 26 years," said Traustchold, a junior studying industrial engineering. "We can have a toga party any time."

At least Faxel thought to bring along a sweatshirt -- Trautschold wore nothing but the thin sheet that served as his toga. He is a Wisconsin native and hardy enough that he swam in Lake Michigan on New Year's Day as part of a local Polar Bear club, but waiting for the basketball team in a toga proved a bit much even for him. The goosebumps on his body were so large that each should have borne a Titleist logo.

Still, he not only hung in there until the basketball team arrived about an hour late, he was one of the last of the several hundred students to leave, remaining until he was able to lean out and slap hands with the team in congratulations.

Although his hand must have been so numb by then that I doubt he felt it.

To-ga! To-ga! To-ga!
I spent six years at the University of Washington but never attended a toga party, so as Trautschold and Faxel began trotting back to theirs, I asked if I could join them. They responded with an enthusiastic yes, though it might have been due to my accompanying offer of a ride in a warm car.

Jim Caple at Marquette
This photo includes a dozen partying Marquette students and one aging sportswriter. We're sure you know which is which.
When I arrived at the party, my "Animal House" visions went unfulfilled. No one tossed a keg out the window. No band played "Shout." No one smeared mustard over his chest or smashed a folk singer's guitar against the stairway. No one seduced the mayor's wife (at least not that I see). It was just a nice little party and as the night wore on, I made a houseful of delightful new friends. They pinned a sheet on me for a toga, and as night neared morning, they even insisted that I join them in a circle for their traditional party-closing sing-along to Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

I never went to Marquette, I left my own college in 1986 and I didn't know any of these students until late that night, but there I was singing and swaying with them to a song that is even older than Marquette's 1977 championship.

Well, it seemed liked the logical thing to do.

That's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. It brings fans together everywhere, taking us all back to school, whether or not we ever attended. In a four corners spread that would put Dean Smith to shame, it ranges from Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., to the University of Florida, from Syracuse to the University of San Diego. From the University of Oregon halls that played the role of Faber College in "Animal House" to the Butler fieldhouse that held the finale to "Hoosiers," the tournament turns the entire nation into one enormous campus.

Airlines might link us to the world, but the NCAA bracket binds America.

It's what empties the nation's supply of copier toner every March. It's what makes kids from the inner city and prep academies shed tears when cutting down a net. It's what causes a city of fans to spill into the Milwaukee streets and race to the lakefront in sheer joy.

Well, we're all in the mood for a melody, and you've got us feeling all right.

This is Final Four week, and you won't need to wear a toga in the Wisconsin cold to find your flesh as pebbled with goosebumps as a basketball.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.